A Jane To Remember
Eighteen feature Jane Eyres in the past century -- the best in 1944, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine -- plus nine telefilms attest to the attraction of Charlotte Bronte’s literary sensation while also raising the questions whether yet another is needed and, if so, what it adds in justification.
Filmdom’s latest return to this classic avoids royalties and legal snafus, but, beyond intrinsic merits in pacing, sets and cinematography, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s rendition (from Moira Buffini’s “based-on” script) restores an essential episode usually given short cinema shrift, that of the title heroine’s (Mia Wasikowska) stay and employment at St. John Rivers’ (Jamie Bell) parsonage. Almost at the end of chronology and of the film, it will enable Jane to see the superficiality of tradition, convention, and religious appearances and so return to Thornfield with her spirit reconciled with what she still thinks is a step beyond propriety. (That the social impediment has been providentially removed, is gravy, if a capitulation to 1847 English mores, but nothing to alter her egalitarian soul.)
The film opens with the start of this often-overlooked part, Jane fleeing from somewhere and someone and, exhausted and drenched, nursed back to health and confidence by St. Johns’ sisters (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant, as Diana and Mary). Then through short flashbacks and a long one essentially the body of the hundred fifteen minutes, her story unfolds from age ten (Amelia Clarkson) to the nineteen of the present to which the film returns and with which it ends.
Like stepchildren in fairy tales, the stubborn orphan is mistreated at Gateshead by widowed aunt Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), who later conceals an important letter in an ill-integrated revelation. Consigned to charity school Lowood, where she is to remain during holidays, the girl is mentally and corporeally punished by adults, on whose instructions the others shun her except for hopeful tubercular Helen Burns (Freya Parks).
Small, plain and unprepossessing, she perseveres and, studies completed after a decade, is dispatched to remote Thornfield as governess to French-speaking Adčle Varens (Romy Settbon Moore), the ward of its master, Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Unused to either children or tenderness, the bitter owner is away more often than not, returns and leaves with scant warning and, as he insists, has no pleasure but emotional pain in this life that is a “cage.”
Governess and Byronic master accidentally first meet in misty woods, under gothic romance -- and D. H. Lawrencian -- circumstances even if Jane observes that imps and elves would not inhabit such “tamed” places. To its credit, the film goes easy on the fantastic trappings and “horror” so popular after Ann Radcliffe that Jane Austen saw fit to satirize them. They are here, but softly so, in palatable doses and in the somber colors lit by candles and fireplaces.
The surly insulting Rochester tests the new employee’s mettle. Impressed by her intelligence and refusal to toady, he seeks out her company if not her advice and delights in the independent young woman’s respectfully asserting her self as the equal of his. Well-meaning housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) is solicitous but warns against wealthy men’s true intentions and takes as fait accompli that the master is betrothed to supercilious blueblood Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots).
Rochester, it will turn out, guards a fifteen-year-old secret, from romantic exotic Spanish Town, Jamaica, West Indies, that he is too cowardly -- and selfish -- to reveal. It is obvious that, true beauty an inner thing, he and Jane are destined for one another but unable to commit fully to passion without total trust on both sides. Fassbender cannot be faulted for falling shy of Welles’s egocentric charisma; but it is really Wasikowska’s pale, slight heroine who carries the centerpiece burden. Proto-feminist or merely her own instinctive person, withholding or giving with equal resolve, her restrained Jane is among those to remember.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “PG-13” for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content.)